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What Is Language Discrimination?

While Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects applicants and employees from being discriminated against due to their national origin, there are occasions where employers will sometimes try to engage in behavior that may exclude people based on a certain aspect of national origin—most commonly, the language they speak or the accent they may speak it with. If you believe this has happened to you, you may be able to bring a case against your employer. Read on to learn more about language discrimination.

National Origin Discrimination Is Prohibited

National origin or ethnicity is included in federal (and most state) antidiscrimination laws, including South Carolina’s. This means that if an employer treats, for example, immigrant employees more poorly than U.S. citizen employees, their conduct may be actionable. However, in recent years especially, a handful of cases have been brought that allege discrimination not on the strength of one’s entire national origin, but on the basis of isolated characteristics—such as one’s language or accent.

Numerous myths abound about what constitutes national origin discrimination, which can contribute to thinking that behavior like language discrimination is acceptable or somehow does not rise to the level of actual discrimination. This is simply not the case. Behavior like nicknames, impersonations and stereotyping may not be discriminatory on their own, but together they can constitute a hostile work environment. The case of Karagiosian v Burbank (2012) is instructive. In this case, the plaintiff was teased for years about his Armenian origins. It was several patterns of teasing and insults together that ultimately led to a jury awarding him $150,000 in damages after a hostile work environment claim.

“Business Necessity” Is The Only Exception

Language discrimination, more specifically, is behavior that discriminates against non-native speakers of English for reasons not deemed to constitute a business necessity. An employer is permitted to insist that employees speak English for reasons that do constitute a business necessity. For example, a factory manager may demand at least some English proficiency from all employees so that they can understand safety instruction. Unless a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason is offered, English tests and requirements are considered unfair.

Other forms of language discrimination include demoting or shifting employees away from work with the public because of a perceived inability to communicate or a preference for another accent. For example, shifting native Spanish speakers to internal jobs while putting all native English speakers in customer-facing positions when necessity is not an issue. If your employer has 15 or more employees, you may be able to bring suit with either the South Carolina Human Affairs Commission or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). If there are fewer than 15, the Justice Department’s Immigrant and Employee Rights Section may be able to assist.

Contact An Experienced Attorney

People who learn to speak English in order to further their job prospects should be praised rather than discriminated against. If you have been discriminated against due to your language skills or accent, you may be able to seek compensation. Attorney A. Christopher Potts is experienced with cases of national origin discrimination. Contact us today to set up an appointment.

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